Ronald Hiers used to hope that every day he managed to open his eyes would be his last.
After all, with death would come the end of a 44-year-long opioid addiction that had taken everything from the 61-year-old Memphis, Tenn., native and his wife.
“We were powerless over the addiction and our lives were unmanageable. I didn’t want to live anymore,” Hiers told InsideEdition.com. “On the back of a receipt, I wrote out my own obituary and put it in my wallet for whoever would find me.”
On Oct. 3, 2016, he came close to getting his wish.
Hiers and his wife, Carla, were waiting for a bus when the heroin they snorted in a Walgreens bathroom caught up to them.
Sprawled out on the sidewalk and unable to move, the couple was oblivious to the crowd—including a man with a camera phone—that laughed and joked at them.
That stranger shared the startling video on Facebook, where it was viewed more than 3 million times. Even more people watched the footage after it was shared by TV news stations and on YouTube.
First responders revived the couple, and Ronald walked away from another close call.
“I don’t know how I got back home,” said Hiers, who remembers nothing from that day. “And the next day I got some more of the same dope that you saw me on in the video. I woke up again. I had a bottle of Xanax. So I took what was left and swallowed them all. Well damn, I woke up again.”
Hiers woke to a phone call from his estranged daughter, who had seen the viral video. She wanted to help him, she said.
After spending most of his life battling addiction, Hiers is now marking one year sober.
“That video put me on the path,” he said. “But it’s complicated.”
Social media first appeared to explode with images of people suffering heroin overdoses last fall.
In September 2016, the East Liverpool Police Department shared photos of a man and woman passed out in the front of a car as the woman’s grandson sat in the back seat.
The images were shared more than 6,000 times and made headlines across the world.
Police drew criticism for sharing the pictures but they said it was their hope that the images would encourage change in the face of an increasingly dire situation.
“It’s a photo that needs to be shared,” Police Chief John Lane told InsideEdition.com at the time. “You’ve got to understand, this isn’t a one-time deal … this is a major issue that needs to be dealt with. It’s happening all over and little kids are caught up in this. It’s very frustrating.”
More and more images started popping up on Facebook and Twitter as law enforcement agencies and witnesses tried to show the effects of drug addiction.
A little over a year later, officials in East Liverpool said they believed it had made a difference.
“Releasing the photo of that boy in the backseat, grandma and her boyfriend overdosed in the front, lit a fire that many said would only do harm to our city. Some questioned such a drastic measure, others embraced it,” Brian Allen, the director of service and safety for the City of East Liverpool, said in a statement. “The city administration went to work, bringing departments together, combining resources, networking with non-government agencies, and utilizing every tool available to fight this epidemic.”
He pointed to considerable progress made in that time.
“A year ago, we had virtually no treatment options. Today, we have many. In fact, anyone who is serious about recovery is offered that chance, regardless of income or insurance status. Both faith based and traditional recovery are available for the first time in our city,” Allen said.
This time last year, the East Liverpool Police Department received an average of one to two overdose calls per day, with as many as 11 on some days.
“Today, we have received only 2 overdose calls in the last 30 days,” he said. “In 2016, our city lost twelve lives to the opioid epidemic. Thus far in 2017, our city has lost two. That is two too many. I look forward to the day when I can report zero."
Still, experts in the field caution against using images such as those shared by the East Liverpool Police Department.
“There is a long history … of using frightening messages and photos in campaigns to protect health and safety. The general conclusion is that fear arousal is an ineffective intervention,” said Denis McCarty, a professor in the Department of Public Health & Preventative Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.
McCarty assesses the organization, financing and quality of prevention and treatment services for alcohol and drug disorders. He told InsideEdition.com the photos and videos of people overdosing may have the opposite effect than intended.
“The pictures do more to stigmatize drug use and drug users and are likely to do more harm than good,” McCarty said. “Users may be less likely to seek care because of the stigmatization.”
Instead, community leadership has proved to be more successful, he said.
He pointed to Project Lazarus, a non-profit organization that provides training and technical assistance to communities looking to address addiction, as a good example.
“It began as a citizen effort to address opioid overdose in Wilkes County, North Carolina,” he said. “As a result of public education, community awareness, naloxone distribution, more access to treatment, harm reduction efforts, pain patient support and attention to diversion control, they have dramatically reduced the rates of opioid overdose.
“Posting photos seems to be more of an embarrassment to opioid survivors and a crude assault on the families of individuals who do not survive. Sheriffs and chiefs who reach out to the community and participate in community efforts like Project Lazarus will be more effective.”
Hiers agrees. While the viral video in Oct. 2016 started him on a path to recovery, he has mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the method.
Instead, he likened the photos and videos to a nation-wide Rorschach test.
“If I had seen that video when I was using, I would have thought, ‘man, that’s some good dope,’” Hiers said. “I’m of the opinion that people who don’t do drugs see those videos, they’re not affected by them. People who are on drugs, they see those videos, but they know that [happens] already. It has no bearing on them.”
By his own account, Hiers was an unlikely poster child for recovery.
“In 1972, I bought my first bag of dope. In October of 2016 I bought my last bag,” he said. “But I had a lot of issues going on before I knew what drugs and alcohol was.”
Hiers was born after his mother had an affair but he was raised by her husband, who knew the little boy wasn’t his.
“He was an angry person and he would take his anger out on me. I didn’t know how to deal with that, and some other issues,” Hiers said.
Hiers began smoking when he was 13. Six months later, he had moved on to alcohol and marijuana. It wasn’t long after that he began experimenting with other controlled substances.
“I was 17 years old when I bought my first bag of heroin,” he said. “I was looking for a bag of pot. I just pulled up beside a couple guys, asked where can I get some pot and they said ‘we ain’t got pot, we got heroin.’ And off I went.”
He quickly turned to crime to support his habit, using a switchblade to rob sailors as they were leaving a nearby Navy base and burglarizing homes. By his own account, he’s been arrested 144 times and has spent more than 15 years in prison.
He got married at 26 and had two children before he and his first wife divorced less than two years later.
“My addiction drove me to do some things I’m certainly not proud of,” he said. “Until you get rid of that, you don’t have room for nothing else.”
Even a battle with throat cancer wasn’t enough to scare Hiers into getting clean.
“It had got to a point where [I thought] ‘I’m just a drug addict, I’m just a criminal, that’s all I’m going to be. It is what it is,’” he said. “You have to get woken up. You have to have a spiritual awakening.”
His came in the form of his daughter, who spent her 35th birthday watching the video of her father and his wife overdose.
She spent five hours trying to decide what to do, he said.
“She wrestled with it,” he said. “I don’t blame her. I hadn’t been there for her.”
But ultimately she decided to give her estranged father one last chance.
She called the drug rehab facility Turnbridge, formerly known as Turning Point, and explained who her father was. They immediately set out to bring him in for treatment.
“The phone’s ringing, and it’s my daughter, but I didn’t want to talk to her,” Hiers said.
She continued to try him for three hours.
“Finally I answered,” he said. “She tells me, ‘Hi Daddy, where do you live?’ She’s 35 years old and she’s having to ask her daddy where he lives. That sticks out in my mind. Well, I tell her my address and I ask her why, but she calls me back in 30 minutes and says ‘there’s a man outside in the car. I want you to talk to him.’ I’m so high I do it.”
Hiers was brought to a rehab center in Southaven, Miss., where he spent 39 days getting clean. It was there that he found out why his daughter cut ties 13 years earlier.
“About 26 days into this program, one of my therapists there set up a conference call with the daughter who set me up,” he said. “She shared why we were estranged. She had her first child, and she said ‘I wasn’t going to let my kids see you like I saw you.’ She started crying … [saying] ’48 years of addiction versus 26 days of sobriety’ … do they have anything more to offer you?’
“Crying my eyes out, I promised her I would get whatever they had if it was available,” he said.
Hiers finished treatment and then moved to a supervised community living home.
His wife, Carla, also accepted treatment at a Turning Point facility in Massachusetts, where she was still living at the time of publication.
Many things have changed for Hiers since he answered his daughter’s call last year.
No longer are his days consumed by the promise of a fix or the stress of how to get it.
He spends his time attending AA meetings (“I used to go to four or five meetings a day. I still try to make one a day”), working his 12-step program and talking to others struggling with addiction.
“I didn’t ask for this publicity—but I got it,” he said. “People know me. I feel that not only to my daughter and myself, I owe it to these people … who say ‘you’re such an inspiration to me.’”
Most importantly, Hiers has spent the last year reconnecting with his family, including his stepfather whom he now considers one of his best friends.
But he still carries that receipt carrying his obituary. It serves as a reminder of what could have been.
“The most dreadful thing I regret about being sober is I didn’t do it sooner,” Hiers said. “I wasted all my life. But the only way to make you stop is to stop yourself.”